The African Union (AU) on Tuesday said it was suspending coup-hit Niger but called for a report into the implications of a threatened military operation to restore its ousted president, as Nigerien TV said 12 troops died in a new attack by suspected jihadists.
National guards carrying out an anti-jihadist operation in the southwestern region of Tillaberi were ambushed on Sunday night, Tele Sahel said, adding that the troops inflicted “heavy losses” on the enemy.
Niger’s armed forces, struggling with an eight-year jihadist campaign, have lost at least 29 men since officers toppled elected president Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.
The coup — justified by its leaders because of Bazoum’s perceived failure to stem the insurgents — triggered a bust-up with France, Niger’s staunchest ally, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
ECOWAS has slapped trade sanctions on Niger and approved deployment of a “standby force to restore constitutional order” in Niamey.
The bloc is hazy about the plan but insists it would intervene if attempts at a diplomatic solution ultimately fail.
As the crisis neared the end of its fourth week, the AU on Tuesday said it was suspending Niger from its ranks but indicated caution on the ECOWAS threat following strong differences among its members.
The AU said its Peace and Security Council had asked the body’s Commission to carry out “an assessment of the economic, social and security implications” of deploying the force, and report back.
The coup has heightened international worries over the Sahel, which faces growing jihadist insurgencies linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Niger is the fourth ECOWAS nation since 2020 to suffer a coup, following Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali.
The new military ruler General Abdourahamane Tiani has proposed a three-year transition back to democracy, a call rejected by ECOWAS, which sent a delegation to visit Niger on the weekend in a final diplomatic push.
Abdel-Fatau Musah, ECOWAS commissioner for politics and security, described the proposal as “a joke” and said the bloc would “never accept it.”
“We want constitutional order to be restored as soon as possible,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview broadcast Monday.
“Military action is not off the table,” he warned.
Unlike a previous ECOWAS mission in early August, this time the delegation held talks with Tiani and also met Bazoum, who is being held with his family at the presidential palace and could be facing treason charges.
Images on Niger television showed Bazoum smiling and shaking hands with members of the delegation, as international concern grows over his conditions in detention.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned last week that sanctions and border closures were crimping vital food and medical supplies into Niger.
#Niger: As the lean season progresses, WFP continues to provide vital assistance.
Nearly 3.3 million people face acute food insecurity, while humanitarian needs may rise further as the political crisis unfolds.
— World Food Programme (@WFP) August 18, 2023
ECOWAS has imposed sanctions on Niger while Benin and Nigeria have closed their borders.
However, the juntas in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali have said that any military intervention in Niger would be considered a “declaration of war” against their countries.
Around 300 trucks arrived in Niger’s capital of Niamey on Monday from Burkina Faso, most of them carrying food, the Nigerien authorities said.
The Sahel state ranks among the most turbulent and poorest countries in the world, often lying at the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, a benchmark of prosperity.
Bazoum’s election in 2021 was a landmark, opening the way to the country’s first peaceful transition of power.
He survived two attempted coups before finally being toppled. His ouster marks the fifth putsch since Niger gained independence from France in 1960.